Fish passage plan for Savannah River takes shape

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 2:44 PM
Last updated 6:37 PM
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The newest proposed design for fish passage at New Savannah Bluff could divert up to 100 percent of the Savannah River’s flow to a series of rock ramps to be built on the channel’s South Carolina side.

The newest fish passage design for New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam includes rock ledges to be built on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.  SPECIAL
The newest fish passage design for New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam includes rock ledges to be built on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.

The project, with a current price tag of $30.2 million, would allow migratory fish such as sturgeon, American shad and striped bass to access spawning habitat upstream.

Currently, those species are blocked by the 76-year-old lock and dam, which has lapsed into disrepair since the corps halted maintenance of the structure – and the river’s navigation channel – in 1979.

The fish passage project has become increasingly complex – and costly – since it was proposed in 1999, when the price estimate was $7 million.

Although the adjoining lock and dam are in need of renovations, the Army Corps of Engineers’ current plan includes only the fish passage structure, which is part of the mitigation plan for the $652 million deepening of Savannah Harbor.

According to a fact sheet released this week by the corps, the new design is known as an “off-channel rock ramp” and would look like a collection of boulders that create rapids in the river.

The structure would provide a constant flow through the boulders as long as the river’s total flow is at least 8,000 cubic feet per second.

If flows fall below that benchmark, the five gates in the dam would remain closed to allow 100 percent of the river’s flow to pass through the rock ramps.

Similarly, the corps summary said, if flows exceed 8,000 cubic feet per second, the gates can be opened to allow water to dissipate downstream.

The operating plan for the project includes five years of monitoring after construction to ensure that it fulfils its purpose.

Although funds from the Savannah Harbor project are expected to finance the fish passage plan, no money has been allocated for the renovation of the lock and dam.

The corps, which built the structure in 1937, concluded in 1999 that the dam no longer served commercial shipping – the purpose for which it was built. Its plan to demolish the structure was opposed by local governments and industries that rely on its pool of water.

In August, a consortium of stakeholders, including Augusta-Richmond County and North Augusta, agreed to finance a $300,000 federal study to gather new data on the cost and scope of the dam’s needed renovations. Once repaired, ownership of the project – and its maintenance responsibilities – would be turned over to the consortium.

Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell said the new study could be launched soon.

He said that the corps recently obtained congressional approval to negotiate an agreement with the consortium, under which the corps would accept the funds needed to complete the study.

“We haven’t started those negotiations, as the approval just came earlier this month,” Birdwell said, “but we are moving forward.”

Other members of the stakeholders’ consortium include Aiken County, DSM, Kimberly-Clark, General Chemical, Po­tash Corp. and South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.


1816: Commercial shipping on the Savannah River is born with the launch of the Enterprise, a steamboat owned by businessman Samuel Howard.

1820-1850s: As many as 20 commercial steamers travel the river, departing Augusta almost daily with up to 1,000 bales of cotton.

1850s-1900: River commerce dwindles as railroads haul more cargo and passengers.

1927: Congress authorizes New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam, despite a corps study that found little economic benefit.

1937: New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam is dedicated.

1950s: Oil and timber barges use the lock regularly.

1960s: Commerce dwindles again, and the use of the lock decreases.

1979: In the absence of commercial traffic, the corps ceases all maintenance on the river channel and the lock and dam.

1986: The corps announces plans to close the lock, but Augusta officials want it kept open and agree to renovate and lease the nearby park.

2000: A federal study recommends that the lock be dismantled and removed, and an experimental draw-down imitating a low-flow 100-year drought is conducted to illustrate how the river might look.

2001: Local governments agree to assume ownership of the project if Congress would finance repairs, estimated at that time to cost $6.8 million, compared with $5.3 million for demolition.

2002: Legislation requiring repairs is passed, but it does not include any funding for the project.

2005: Complete renovations are re-estimated at $22 million, which includes a fish passage. Local governments insist it be repaired at federal expense before they take title.

2006: The corps receives $1.19 million in planning and engineering funds for the renovations but no construction money.

2007: The corps concludes that a new study will be needed to recalculate the rising costs.

2009: The corps’ Savannah District lands $94.3 million in American Recovery & Reinvestment Act funds, but not a dime is allocated to the project.

2010: Congress continues to refuse to fund renovations, but a $7 million fish passage device is proposed as part of mitigation for a planned Savannah Harbor expansion.

2011: The National Marine Fisheries Service contends that fish structure is insufficient and once again concludes that the best option is to demolish and remove the dam.

2012: Stakeholder group that includes Augusta, North Augusta and various industries offers to finance a $300,000 study to update the structure’s repair needs, in hopes of using the data to seek federal funding.

2013: New studies show the fish passage alone will cost about $30.2 million — without any funds to repair the adjacent lock and dam.

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itsanotherday1 06/18/13 - 04:25 pm
Removing the dam would be

Removing the dam would be devastating to downtown and the Carolina side. Way too much at stake for a lot of people. D*** the fish! They've been doing just fine for 70 odd years with the locks in place.

RMSHEFF 06/18/13 - 06:30 pm
If the dam were removed the

If the dam were removed the river would turn into a creek. Instead of a riverfront stadium we would have a creek front stadium. The city of Augusta and North Augusta riverfront would be wiped out along with any hopes of revitalizing Down Town Augusta. Not to mention several of Augusta's larger employers would be left high and dry. The only question is who will pay for the renovation of the locks.

LeConteSkier 06/18/13 - 11:18 pm

Greenville has done wonders with a "stream" of a river by thinking outside of the box. They have an amazing waterfront along the Reedy River and the falls. Events like the ironman and regattas would be in jeopardy but could easily be accommodated in other places like Langley Pond or Lake Olmsted. I will say though I would love to kayak the new fish passage when it is build. That looks like fun!

Dixieman 06/19/13 - 06:41 am
How was this funded?

By FISHSPLOST of course!

JakeQ 06/19/13 - 09:43 am
Creek, crick, or trickle?

The Savannah River accommodated steam boats up to Augusta long before the dam was built, so she'd hardly be a creek, but she also certainly wouldn't be the pool we have today (Maybe a little more creek-like with the water diverted into the canal?) and the level would fluctuate a lot more. That'd be a huge change.
I'd certainly take that kayak ride, though!

proud2bamerican 06/19/13 - 10:35 am
wake up

Please! Let's wake up and look at the real NEEDS we have in our community which we claim not to have money for! Furloughing teachers, police, and over loading school classrooms, etc....I see the craziness in D.C., but does it have to go on here too?!!

sewerbabe 06/19/13 - 11:07 am
Silly silly people..

Look at the members of "the consortium". Follow that money trail. We're killing a lot of rivers in Georgia, I.e., not naive enough to believe it's all about the fish here.

Sweet son
Sweet son 06/19/13 - 01:35 pm
Just Do It!

Enough money has been wasted already in studying the dam and the fish passage. If all of the study money is tallied up I bet it would be enough to complete the project. Maybe all of the governments and industries that stand to lose the most could come up with some of the money.

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